Monday, July 9, 2007

The Machinist (2004)

Directed by Brad Anderson
Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh

I've liked Christian Bale as an actor for a while now, but I'll admit that his star rose for me only in the past few years when I rented American Psycho and saw him in Batman Begins. A friend recommended I see this movie, saying that it was a really good film and that Bale lost a dangerous amount of weight to play the lead role.

A skinny outsider, trapped in a dead-end job and suffering from insomnia, meets some guy who apparently is so far below the radar that nobody else knows anything about him. As time goes on, the beginnings of a conspiracy are uncovered that will ultimately shake the core of the outsider and how he views the world.

Sound familiar? At first glance, this story smacks of Fight Club without the fight or the club, but ultimately, The Machinist is a completely standalone story. I’ve tried to avoid the recently ubiquitous “schizophrenic/invisible friend” movies ever since making the mistake of seeing “Identity”. Luckily, we’re not treated to that type of sensationalist supernatural representation.

Instead, the main character’s descent into madness is gradual and calculated with plenty of ominously foreboding elements. Hollywood tends to romanticize schizophrenia, and this movie is no exception, but at least it's subtle, closer to the way A Beautiful Mind pulled the wool over your eyes until the reveal and then maintained the effects of the character's illness. Overall I was impressed with the portrayal and the way the movie took you along for the ride.

In a classic De Niro-esque fashion, Christian Bale lost an incredible amount of weight to play the part of a man who hasn’t slept for a year. Every bone and muscle sinew sticks out from his seemingly 0% body fat physique. In one scene, you can actually count his ribs. The line “if you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist” is repeated twice and isn’t far off the mark. A scene establishes that his character weighs south of 120 for most of the movie. Beyond that, Bale plays a very convincing paranoid insomniac. I’m surprised that I never heard about this movie until after Batman Begins, though I can see why Christopher Nolan knew that he’d have the intensity necessary to play Batman/Bruce Wayne.

There are some actresses that almost guarantee a nude scene in a movie. Somehow, Jennifer Jason Leigh can’t get through a movie without showing off some skin. It’s like it’s written into her contract or something. No exceptions here, though to be fair she is playing a call girl so there’s at least some justification.

The computerized effects in this movie are subtle, almost subliminal at times. Flashes of a man wearing glasses and a speedometer. A water tower in a background shot that turns out to be a giant swing ride on second glance. An eerie lensing effect looking through a camera’s viewfinder. Together these serve to raise the emotion of the mystery quite effectively.

Practical effects are equally emotional, though in a more terrifying manner. Most notable are the industrial accidents that are reminiscent of horror films. The portrayal of the slow clockwork progression of a gruesome death or maiming by a soulless machine is chilling. That said, gore is kept to a minimum and lighting is used to reduce what you see to what you think you might be seeing.

The eerie and ominous orchestral score successfully heightens the mystery and suspense while complimenting the half-asleep waking dream state of the main character. (And I mean that in a good way.)

Atmospheric and Immersive Details
I’ve read somewhere that dreams are the way the rational mind makes sense of seemingly irrational events or events that the rational mind cannot face in the waking world. This movie capitalizes on this concept, moving the main character’s nightmare into his waking world because he is unable to sleep. An amusement park fun house ride in the middle of the movie serves as an extremely symbolic waking dream with almost every element hinting at the solution of the mystery. During the ride, the figuratively spiritual choice of Salvation vs Damnation is shown as a literal fork in the road with the fun house car heading to Hell on the left (the shoulder your devil sits on in superstition by the way). Left turns show up throughout the movie and ultimately play into the real reason that the main character drives so far out of his way to eat pie and coffee at the airport every night. It’s only once he faces his demons that he is finally able to make a right turn towards Salvation.

The use of imagery is vast, with specific elements appearing over and over (either in reality or imagined) and camera angles placed to include items important to the story or end a tracking shot on a word in a poster to add emphasis to the scene. Color and lighting help heighten the moods of the various scenes. Industrial machines appear deadlier and more menacing, characters appear surreal at times, and the darkness increases as the main character’s life continues to fall apart so that near the end there are no lights at all, only a few camping lanterns and flashlights. This light/dark theme carries right into the credits with a rarely seen fade to white and then black lettering against a white background.

A really good movie that I'm glad was recommended to me. Strong story, great detail, good acting and role preparation. This movie was right up my alley and I really enjoyed it. My only complaint would be that at times the story took a strange tangent that was unnecessary (Ivan's fingers) and though a solid film and one that I'd like to add to my collection, not one that I'd pick first to watch given a choice. Because of this, I've given it 4 Stars (Really Liked It).

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